RENO, Nev. (AP) -- Nevada's secretary of state declined Friday to lift a ban on a rural county's controversial early hand-count of mail-in ballots, saying a modified procedure the county clerk proposed still raises "concerns relating to the integrity of the election."
Republican Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske ordered Nye County last week to halt its hand-counting of ballots until after polls close on Nov. 8. Her order came after the Nevada Supreme Court issued an opinion siding with the American Civil Liberties Union's objections to the reading of individual votes out loud.
In a letter to the county Friday, Cegavske invited county officials to update or better explain their proposal for a silent hand-count with more details.
But the move makes it increasingly difficult for Nye County to revise, submit, get approval and carry out plans for the hand-count of mail-in ballots before polls close on Election Day.
Meanwhile, the ACLU and the sprawling, heavily GOP county halfway between Reno and Las Vegas continued to argue over the circumstances that led to an election official, who was openly carrying a gun, removing an ACLU observer from the hand-count that lasted two days before Cegavske suspended it last Thursday night.
Lawyers for Nye County said in a new letter to Cegavske Friday that the chairman of the Nye County GOP Central Committee who was legally armed was acting as a hand-count volunteer trained by county Interim Clerk Mark Kampf when she confronted the ACLU observer she believed was tallying the vote count in violation of the recount rules.
The ACLU quickly responded and the dispute could last past Election Day. But the rejection of the county's late-hatched proposal to resume the hand-count in silence puts the early count of mail-in ballots almost out of reach by the time polls close.
Kampf proposed three talliers and a control team with two independent verifiers who mostly worked separately, so there would be no reader who called out each ballot or verifier, who looked over the reader's shoulder.
Cegavske listed a number of concerns in explaining why she would need more details before she allowed the count to resume.
She noted the silent hand-count will require the "complete focused attention" on each ballot by talliers that will prevent them from noticing when other talliers make wrongful marks or mistakes.
"Additionally, there are no provisions in your plan describing the required use of medical-style gloves to further mitigate the risk of cheating or accidental marking, nor a prescribed and standardized device for tallying to ensure any new mark could be quickly identified," she said.
Nye County is one of the first jurisdictions nationwide to act on election conspiracies related to mistrust in voting machines, though other counties across Nevada have considered using hand-counts in the future.
Earlier Friday, lawyers for the county rejected the ACLU's recent accusations of a "coordinated partisan election administration effort" in a letter to Cegavske's office asking for an investigation into the hand-count. Hours later the ACLU responded, doubling down on its concerns.
The ACLU's complaint about the removal of its observer by Nye County GOP Central Committee Vice Chair Laura Larsen raised concerns about Kampf's delegation of authority to partisan officials to remove observers from hand-count rooms, particularly during a hand-count process dealing with ballot tabulation.
Along with noting Nevada is an open-carry state, Nye County's lawyers said the county understood Larsen, a trained volunteer, had never threatened to use the firearm. The county also argued that taking notes jeopardized releasing early voting results and said there was no partisan conspiracy as part of its hand-count plan.
Larsen's position as the vice chair of Nye County's GOP central committee "does not limit or invalidate her ability to participate as a poll worker/volunteer," the response added.
But the ACLU said in a letter to the secretary of state's office that the county's response "further emphasizes that Larsen is, in fact, not serving in a neutral capacity" and remains active in partisan leadership.
In an interview with The Associated Press after the first day of hand-counting, Larsen said her role was "making sure things are going the way Mark (Kampf) has set everything up. So, just looking out for the election integrity." She did not respond to an email requesting comment on Friday.
Of Nye County's 97 hand-count volunteers, 70 were registered Republicans, 16 were Democrats, 10 were Non-Partisan or had no political party and one was from the Independent American Party, according to data The AP received through a public records request. The county later declined to give the party breakdown for each of the individual hand-count rooms, which had five people each: a reader, a verifier and three talliers.
The county also declined to provide the party breakdown for an updated number of volunteers, which was at 102 on the first day of hand-counting. Former President Donald Trump won about 69% of Nye County in the 2020 election, though he lost Nevada by about 2.4%.
Nye County has just over 33,000 registered voters and planned on using a hand-count as the secondary tabulation method to Dominion tabulators. Kampf has floated the possibility of moving away from tabulators in the 2024 cycle for a sole hand-count.
Two hand-count groups that The AP observed on day one took about three hours each to count a batch of 50 ballots.